Tag Archives: art history

Examining the spirit in secular art

Robert Nelson The Spirit of Secular Art, A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Value (Monash University ePress, 2007) is an ambitious project, a complete history of western art from Ancient Greek art to the present day. Very ambitious as it requires the author to have a good knowledge of the entire history of art which Nelson does have.


Along the way Nelson does make some interesting arguments about the architecture of frames in medieval altar pieces, progress in academic art in the nineteenth century and the limitations of symbolism compared to Freudian psychology. See Peter Steele’s review “The Material Stretched by the Spiritual” in Eureka Street Vol18 no.4

Ambitious as the project is, it is unfortunately a rather conservative project. Nelson follows the usual strata of art periods; Ancient Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, etc. The idea of broad layers of styles defining a time, does not fully explain all of the art being created during that period nor is it a clear guide to the history of influences on artists.

The book is also a bit of a jeremiad, a general complaint about contemporary art. Nelson writes several times that contemporary artists are “sacrificing their talent”. Although I am now antique I don’t want to be a grumpy old man and complain about the standard of art today. It is as boring and false as complaining about the youth of today ever was.

However, the real problem is art’s the sacramental roots and however much Nelson knows about the history of western art, he is not as knowledgable about the history of western religion.

Throughout his history Nelson tries to demonstrate how the sacred added an aura to art in different ways at different times. The term ‘sacred’ is a fuzzy and elastic word, even in comparison to the word ‘art’, and poorly defined terms are the downfall of many studies. For Nelson spirituality haunts art and exorcism is impossible even for secular artists. I have doubts about anything artificial having essential and eternal features as such elastic apparitions may give an object any aura you imagine.

Art’s relationship to the sacred appears to be both complex and varied, leaving many trace elements behind in the mix. Artists may be inspired, or even possessed by muses, spirits, ghosts, gods and genii. Art, particularly the abstract and mathematical nature of music, could be considered an emanation of the divine. And this is not an exhaustive list.

In Roberto Calasso’s book, The Marriage of Harmony and Cadmus, he explains, in his simple but elegant manner, the relationship between beauty and the gods. The gods appreciate beauty, music, perfumes in the same way that we do. For if they did not we would have nothing in common with the gods, there would just be an immense power imbalance.

DAMP @ Neon Parc

Why break ceramic objects (vases, plates, statues, a bathroom sink)? Why paint them with acrylic paint with references to the whole of art history (ancient Greeks to modern masters, including Picasso’s Weeping Woman) and then glue them back together again with polymer adhesive (as best as possible, given that some pieces might go missing in the process)?

Why? I was just re-reading an essay by Arthur Danto on this very subject; “Fine art and functional objects” (Danto, Embodied Meanings, critical essays and aesthetic meditations, 1994). Danto looks at an ancient Greek krater from the sixth century BCE, by the potter Euxitheos, decorated with red-figure paintings by Euphronius and considers the way that the art is now seen, as it is on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as separate from the function. Danto points out that until the eighteenth century, “the distinction between painting and decoration was all bout nonexistent, and pictures were thought of as functional objects as well”. (p.300)

Danto concludes that the distinction between fine art and functionality is “historically contingent and constantly under negotiation.” (p.303) Clearly for this exhibition negotiations had broken down. In negotiating the functionality of the ceramic objects DAMP had broken them to remove their functionality. However, attempting to separate the art from its support is impossible.

Breaking the ceramics reduces their value to almost nothing, they are then transformed into art; a routine practiced by Japanese Buddhist monks, as well as, DAMP.

I walked two or three times around the “Harrison Collection” of painted ceramics by DAMP in the small single room of Neon Parc, chuckling to myself. There were plenty of details to keep looking. DAMP is a Melbourne-based art collective with a fluid membership that started in 1995.

New Approach to Old History

David W. Galenson Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art (Cambridge University Press, 2009, New York)

I have very mixed feelings about this book because I’ve been waiting for this kind of book for decades and I hope that it leads to a revolution in art history. There are problems in art history that I would like to see addressed and Galenson’s book lives up to some of those expectations. Unfortunately the book is also a bit of a bore.

It is this methodology that is the most startling part of the book, an art history book with no pictures but lots of tables. It was the first thing that attracted me to it when I flipped through its pages. I have encountered quantitative research in art history before Galenson but it has been rare; there is a wonderful graph detailing Marcel Duchamp’s art and media coverage throughout his life that Art & America in1969. It is worthwhile method, even if it arrives at intuitively obvious answers. I wish that he’d taken this method further as mapping art movements would have changed his examination of the globalisation of art.

The book does not come to any startling conclusions – the position of Jasper Johns at number 10 in the greatest artists of the 20th Century may be the most startling. This is not surprising as Galenson approaches art history with the attitude that the artists and art history are always right. And Galenson has quantitative and qualitative evidence for this conclusion; he has a data set of images of art in histories of the 20th Century art. And Johns on average beats Brancusi, at number 11, by 0.1 of an illustration.

Galenson is not frightened of making predictions because his predictions are not based on speculation but evidence.

“In view of this, it is likely that in future increasing numbers of young artist will not only make their work jointly, but it will present it explicitly as their joint product. It is also likely that, as in the past, these teams will generally be made up of conceptual artists, for ideas appear to be more readily exchanged and negotiated than visions.” (p.209)

I found some of this evidence interesting in understanding street art and graffiti. The growth in collaborative or co-authored art, the growth in language in visual art and the growth in art refers to graffiti or uses the techniques of graffiti (although street art is not covered in the book).

Galenson does address some interesting points that have rarely, if ever been addressed in art history: the lack of narrative in art history in the late 20th Century, the role of the art market in the proliferation of styles, the growth in artistic collaboration, the relevance of grumpy old artists complaining that the current art is rubbish and the significance of artists who are one hit wonders.

Some of it is a fascinating read but a lot of the book especially the first four chapters felt like revision. I kept on wanted to skip to the end of chapters to see what Galenson’s conclusions would be. If only this wasn’t another overview of 20th Century art history (or if this was the first book on the history of 20th Century art that you have read). And if Galenson wasn’t so focused on his under-whelmingly obvious thesis that it was artists creating new concepts that changed in 20th century art. Then this history might not be such a bore.

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